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The long march to freedom

A few loved it, but most young men spent the two years of their national service ticking off the days to demob. Forty years after the last conscript handed back his boots, Michael Duffy explains what it was all about

730 Days until Demob: national service and the post-1945 Britisharmy National Army Museum, London

"It was part of my education really," says Richard Vaughan, "a sort of extended gap year. You had to take the rough with the smooth, though. 50 per cent of it was good, 30 per cent was all right. And 20 per cent was pretty awful."

Richard Vaughan is a spritely 65; the experience he's describing is history now. It was 40 years ago this week that he handed in his uniform and left the army, the last of almost two million young men who, between 1947 and 1960, were conscripted into the armed forces to do national service - at first for 18 months; then, as the Cold War deepened, for two years; right at the end, for a disbelieving handful, for six months more.

Most of them - 1,132,872 in all - served in the army. To mark the 40th anniversary of Mr Vaughan's landmark demobilisation, the National Army Museum at Chelsea has mounted an exhibition about national service: what it was, what it did, what it meant to the young men - in those days, only men - who did it.

It started on your 18th birthday, when, by law, you had to register for call-up. Then (unless your service was deferred because of continuing education) you were summoned for a medical and asked your choice of service - navy, army, air force - or regiment. The call-up papers would arrive soon after, ordering you to report to a distant camp for training - seldom in the service chosen. And here they are, on display: the enlistment notice, the travel warrant, the postal order for 28 shillings (pound;1.40) - your first week's pay.

Once you reported at the station things happened quickly. Army haircut, army uniform, army supper (three minutes each, it seems) then the barrack room and the first of many nights doing the scrubbing and polishing the army christened "bull". Here are the thick serge battle dress, the webbing packs, the ever-present No 3 green Blanco, the impossibly polished barrack floor. Here, on the iron bed, is the regulation kit display, laid out in precise nine-inch squares for the daily NCO's inspection. Here are the deeply pimpled boots, to be heated and polished overnight to mirror-like perfection. You can almost smell the evening aroma of burning leather, Brasso and Woodbine cigarettes.

After six weeks of PE, bull and square-bashing, young conscripts would go to training regiments for specialist instruction as gunners, signallers, mechanics, drivers or clerks. Some, like Richard Vaughan, would be selected for officer training: three months in the tender care of a ferocious sergeant major. ("I calls you Sir," they used to say, "and you calls me Sir. The difference is, you means it.") For the final 18 months or so, they would be posted to serving units, many of them overseas. Britain was still holding on to its colonial possessions then, and the Cold War was hotting up. Britain maintained bases and fought campaigns across much of the world, some of which are featured in the exhibition.

Here, for instance, is a display about jungle warfare in Malaya from 1948 till 1960 - the only time since the Second World War that a western power has won a counter-insurgency campaign. Here is the Korean War of 1950-53; here is Africa, when the wind of change was already blowing; here, stretched out along the Iron Curtain, is the British army of the Rhine; here, until the Suez fiasco of 1956 signalled the start of Britain's withdrawal from its Far East and Middle Eastern bases (and the beginning of the end of national service), are Malta and Cyprus, the canal zone, Aden.

It was real soldiering, and it came at a price. Of the 3,000 British soldiers killed in these years, 400 were national service conscripts.

And here, as you leave the exhibition for the museum's permanent galleries, is what (with his army pay book) every national service man always carried with him, not the Mark 4 rifle, long since superseded, and certainly not the unpredictable Sten gun (though both are here, for visitors to handle); but the home-made calendar on which he crossed off each of the 730 days that separated him from civvy street and freedom. Some cheering conscript long ago must have saved this one as he packed his kitbag for the final time.

Hence the title of the rather impressive book the museum has published to commemorate the anniversary. 730 days until Demob by Keith Miller puts national service into a social and personal context as well as a military one. It is illustrated, and it makes extensive use of the national service recollections - some from men who signed on as regulars when their compulsory service ended - that feature in the museum's aural history tapes. There are some splendid stories. People who enjoyed national service - and many did - enjoyed it greatly.

But what will today's children - well catered for by the museum's excellent education unit - make of all this? A Year 6 class from Beachborough school in Northamptonshire are loving the hands-on activities with uniforms and weapons but struggle with the idea of male, compulsory national service.

"Who was the enemy?" they ask. You can see their point. The national history curriculum leaves a lot of gaps.

Older children will wonder more about the context. For 15 years, boys little older than themselves unthinkingly accepted conscription and the often arbitrary and humiliating discipline that enforced it. Some of them learned a trade; all of them learned (along with other, more dubious or more exciting pastimes) the art of "skiving". Many of them learned to handle responsibility. Most learned the invaluable skill of getting on with people from a range of backgrounds and with a range of accents.

They discovered the sense of comradeship that comes from shared danger or even shared boredom. Some of them, thanks to the "schoolies" of the Education Corps, learned at last to read. What they all did, though, was tick off the days until they were free.

Could it happen today? The answer, whatever the elderly veterans say, is almost certainly not. These young men were products of their age: born during or immediately after the Second World War, used to rationing and material deprivation, respectful of authority, insular of view. Many had never travelled beyond their local towns. National service literally opened up new horizons. But it was, for all that, a waste of time. The flooring nails that had to be scraped and polished, the coal that had to be painted, the lawn of the officers' mess that had to be cut with scissors (all well-verified examples) symbolised an attitude of mind. Was that really the best use the country could make, as it struggled to recover from the years of war, of its youngest and fittest men?

"It was two years taken away from your life - taken away forever," Richard Vaughan reflects. "Two years at the very start of your career." How would children react to that now? If you bring them to the exhibition you can ask them. Then they can go home and ask: "What did you do in your national service, Grandad?" They may get some surprising answers.

730 Days until Demob is at the National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HT; tel: 020 7730 0717. It will run until at least the end of the year. A programme of activities on May 17 and 18 includes children's art workshops and opportunities to interview veterans.; days until Demob: national service and the post-1945 British army by Keith Miller is published by the National Army Museum pound;9.95

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